After a 30-minute break and a glass of dark iced tea following lunch service, Reda Salhi was back at the prep counter, sharpening a chef's knife with a steel. Satisfied, he began chopping dried apricots, prunes and onion for a duck tajine from Folie Douce's (1551 G St., Arcata) new dinner menu. His smooth head and horn-rimmed glasses are just visible from the other side of the counter, which is lined with cobalt, turquoise and orange ceramic tajine pots. The vessels are for serving only, since he doesn't trust them to be sturdy enough for the stove. But his brother is coming from France soon, bringing a dozen or so reliable Moroccan ones to cook with.
Before Folie loyalists go into full panic, the artichoke cheesecake is still on the menu and so is the filet mignon with Roquefort. Plenty else, however, has changed. Though escrow has yet to close, on Nov. 26, 2017, Salhi took over the kitchen from Chris Hollan, who started out as a baker and prep cook at Folie Douce 24 years ago before buying the restaurant six years ago. Now Salhi is shifting its eclectic menu toward Lebanese and North African specialties, while keeping a handful of the classic farm-to-table dishes that have earned it a following.
While Salhi was working as a clinical case manager at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, his daughter was starting her first year at Humboldt State University. Since he was looking to get back into the restaurant business, he asked her to scout out Folie Douce. He says after eating there she immediately told him, "This is the place." In a month he'd moved to town and contacted a broker. Now a shawarma spit stacked with spiced meat turns meditatively across from the brick pizza oven that is equally well suited for baking pita bread.
Born in Algeria, Salhi said he spent three years in Italy learning to make pizza and pasta before immigrating to Quito, Ecuador to open an Italian restaurant. But the restaurant was flailing so, after determining there was no Lebanese food locally, he changed course, diving into cookbooks to learn to make basic dishes like hummus and falafel, with which he had no familiarity. Some 2,000 miles across the Mediterranean, the more meat-focused cuisine of Algeria is, he said, "completely different."
Salhi said one of his early customers balked at his attempt at hummus, declaring, "I'm from Israel and this is not hummus." Salhi laughed and responded, "This is Algerian hummus," and then sat down to learn about how Israelis prepare the dish. The hummus he makes now is about as far from the tubs for sale at Costco as you can get. There is no grit — the pale pool swirled with olive oil is smooth as buttercream, smoky and lemony, dusted with dark, pungent sumac. The chickpeas, he explained, soak for 24 hours before they're boiled and pureed.
He travels to Sacramento to buy tahini, spices — including paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and the sumac, which he said "is a must for the kafta and beef shawarma" — and olive oil at Arabic grocery stores. No shade on local olive oil but he said, pressing his fingertips together, "There is a bitterness and there is a unique taste to the type of olive they use" in Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. The same is true, he said, of the spices and the tahini. After swiping a triangle of pita through the hummus and deep green oil, you can't say he's wrong.
"I was lucky," he said, to learn from Syrian chef in Ecuador who knew Lebanese cuisine. The same is true for the butcher shop employees who taught him to make North African lamb sausage — merguez — in France. The merguez shows up with fries, stuffed in a Moroccan sandwich that bears the markings of North Africa's history of French colonization; here it's on the house made pita, though it's often served on baguette, and comes with his own aioli blended with red pepper and spice-rich harissa. In the context of that history and the legion of Western chefs and restaurants that have dipped into Middle Eastern and African spice profiles and cooking methods for inspiration, the juxtaposition of pizzas, kafta and fish with beurre blanc doesn't seem quite so out of nowhere — just flipped. "For a lot of people it seems wild but I think people are interested in something different," Salhi said.
Surveying the scene in Arcata, Salhi saw another community with an opening for Lebanese falafel and Turkish shawarma, and figured he could make a go of it with an affordable lunch and dinner spot. Salhi is also keeping the old menu's filet mignon, scallops and aforementioned artichoke cheesecake on the menu alongside the ground beef kafta and falafel sandwiches.
As for the reaction to the changes so far, "There is some resistance of course, I would say from older folks," said Sahli, "but I'm interested in young folks." With so many Humboldt State University students coming from more culinarily diverse cities, shooting for a growing clientele might not be a bad strategy.
Over at the stove, Salhi tapped a container of ground cinnamon into a pot and stirred the tajine ingredients. Unlike the hummus and the falafel, the tajines are Algerian. "Usually in my country, we only eat this in Ramadan ... It has a lot of fat, sugar — and because we are fasting it has to keep you," he said. Asked if he'd be bringing any of those flavors to the classic Folie Douce dishes like the filet mignon, he broke into a grin that lifted his glasses. "No, they are, they are very popular. I can't play with it."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.